Federal lawsuit says Dodge City’s election system keeps Latino candidates out of office

By: - December 15, 2022 10:36 pm
Debbie Cox registers new voters at the United Wireless Convention Center in Dodge City

Debbie Cox registers new voters at the United Wireless Convention Center in Dodge City in 2022. (Whitney Hodgin/Dodge City Daily Globe)

TOPEKA — A coalition of voting rights groups says Dodge City’s election system is designed to prevent the community’s Latino population from holding office on the city commission.

In a complaint filed late Thursday in federal court, the coalition argues the “at-large” election system is unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The lawsuit was filed by the UCLA Voting Rights Project, American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, the national ACLU, and New York City-based law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton. The city uses an at-large election system, in which all city residents can vote for each of the five seats on the city commission.

About 65% of Dodge City’s residents are Latino. But the election system, plaintiffs argue, allows the city’s white voting bloc to prevent the Latino population from electing candidates. No Latino candidate has been elected to the commission this century.

The coalition says a map that divides the city into five voting districts would give the Latino population the opportunity to hold at least two seats on the commission.

Abena Mainoo, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb, said the firm “is proud to stand with our partners at UCLA and the ACLU in challenging the systematic exclusion of Latine voters from full participation in our democracy.”

“The law requires that Latine voters in Dodge City — and throughout this country — have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” Mainoo said.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Dodge City voters Miguel Coca and Alejandro Rangel-Lopez.

Rangel-Lopez is a civic engagement activist who was a plaintiff in 2018 when the ACLU sued Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox for moving Dodge City’s only polling site to a location outside the city limits. The lawsuit was dismissed after Cox agreed to maintain multiple polling sites for future elections.

The latest lawsuit points to a dramatic rise in the Latino population in Dodge City over the past 20 years, influenced largely by the meatpacking industry. The lawsuit says the lack of success by “Latine-preferred” candidates in Dodge City reflects the larger trend in Ford County, where no Latino residents hold any elected office.

“Dodge City’s at-large scheme intentionally and effectively dilutes the political voices of Latine Kansans in Dodge City,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “This system is reflective of a broader problem in Kansas, where those in power systematically seek to diminish minority voters and exclude them from the governing process. The Latine population in Dodge City deserves equal voice in shaping their local government, and federal law demands it.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits attempts to dilute voting power based on race or color. The lawsuit also cites the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the 15th Amendment, which prohibits intentional racial discrimination.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.